From the EarthWatch Institute website:  “Teach Earth is built upon the principle that every individual can contribute to a sustainable planet, regardless of scientific background or skill.”

As a history teacher I felt excited, but also nervous, about joining an EarthWatch expedition with a heavy science focus this past summer.  Global change is leading to an increase in temperature, carbon dioxide, extreme weather events, and decrease in interaction diversity.  Climate change is something most people can define, but few know how to tackle on a large scale.

So, why caterpillars and why Arizona?  For one, caterpillars can do it all!  They can see, hear, and feel.  Caterpillars and moths provide economic services – they are pollinators and they keep invasive species from spreading.  Climate change affects them (and all insects) because it speeds up their life cycle, which means there will be a greater chance they will become pests.  Our location in Southeast Arizona had a convergence of several key geological features and vegetative provinces, such as the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madre Occidentales, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert.

We were examining not just caterpillars, but also parasitoids.  A parasitoid is a parasite that kills its host.  Parasitoids control the caterpillar population – but as temperatures rise and the caterpillar life cycle shortens, parasitoids won’t be able to “do their job,” essentially, meaning there is a greater chance that caterpillars will become pests.

Another effect of climate change is evident in the plants that caterpillars consume.  Alfalfa, for example, becomes toxic in warmer temperatures.  Caterpillars won’t eat it when it becomes toxic, and the cows that eat it would die.  This change in plant chemistry (an increase of saponin) would also lead to outbreaks of pests and disease.

Even as a history teacher parading as a science teacher for 10 days, it was easy to see the connections.  I believe the real change will come through educating my students in history, civics, and global issues, who are future voters, of the importance of electing officials who will make climate change a priority.  Despite the work of many scientists, too many countries and individuals still have a “conventional” approach – that it is acceptable to sacrifice the environment for economic growth.  What we need to focus on is a sustainable approach, where economic and environmental interests are working TOGETHER through integrated decision making.  We need to set attainable renewable and clean energy targets.

With the presidential race this past year, students have seen firsthand how environmental issues are also political and economic issues.  Even as young as age 12, many have strong ideological feelings.  As someone who seeks to use scientifically-based research and personal experience in lessons, this presents a challenge.  Using science and logic still does not convince each student that this is a real issue that demands our attention.  As an alumna of EarthWatch, I look forward to discussing this issue with my students and school community.

Learn more about Harrisburg Academy on our school website.